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Featured Guide: Lee Whittam

Lee has an uncanny ease about him. Within minutes of meeting you'd likely trust him with the lives of your family. Not an irrelevant quality in a safari guide. Yet perhaps his finest attribute related to this industry is his deep passion for giving his guests the trip of their lifetime. So much so that he founded Essential Africa, a safari outfit specialising in privately guided safaris (trips with a host guide that will stay with his/her guests from lodge to lodge, ensuring a much higher quality and congruent wildlife experience). Zimbabwean born, Lee's wealth of experience is too long to mention, and he has guided in most of Africa's wildlife hotspots including many years with Wilderness Safaris. He is softly spoken and humble, belying his fantastic interpretive, tracking and photographic skills. A safari with Lee will be enthralling, but at nature's gentle, spiritual pace: the way it should be.

What's the most beautiful place you've seen? That's a difficult question but I love the remote parts of the Selous in Tanzania, it’s a blend of rugged baobab studded hills, river beds, ravines and most importantly no fences, lodges, or human presence.  

What's the strangest question you've been asked as a guide? We were watching a hippo in the Okavango one time and one of my guests asked “if 50% of the hippo is out of the water, does that mean that the other 50% is under the water?” It was difficult to reply with a straight face!

As a private host guide, you often sit with your guests with a local guide driving: what are the most frustrating things that happen when you aren't behind the wheel?

· I have a very specific idea of images I want my guests to try and capture during a safari and I try as far as possible to predict when that scene will happen and be in the correct position to get that shot before it happens. A frustrating aspect can be when teamed with a non-photographically minded guide, he or she does not understand the angle/shot we are looking for and it takes some careful explaining to get this point across and to do it in a nice way. 

· Secondly, when something is happening it’s imperative to get the vehicle there as quickly and as safely as possible and to shut it off quickly and sit still without moving around as we are all using long telephoto lenses and any movement has negative effects on the clarity of the images taken by my guests. Fidgeting guides are not helpful in this situation.

· The concept of privately guided safaris is sometimes a new idea for some younger guides and the fact that the clients are with me for on average a two week period during a safari means that we don’t have to tell them everything about an impala on day one of the safari as we have 2 weeks to gradually paint them a complete picture of the things we are seeing and experiencing.

· The clients are also paying me for my guiding abilities and it often feels like the local guide is trying to compete with me to show off his knowledge of wildlife. It’s not a completion at all and there are many guides that are more knowledgeable than me on certain subjects but the idea of private guiding is that we know our clients and their interests and we focus on that during the safari, not irrelevant information or content that isn’t relevant to the situation we are in at that specific time.

· Radios!!!! I cannot understand why most guides find it impossible to either keep their radio volume at the lowest setting or preferably switch it off and find some of their own animals!! There sometimes seems to be a mindset that if the radio isn’t on all the time then we will miss things. There’s nothing wrong (in my opinion) with checking every 15 minutes or so for updates and responding where necessary, again, when you have clients for 2 weeks you don’t need to rush around spotting the "big 5" on every drive. It detracts from the impact of seeing that animal. Track it and find it yourself which builds an experience rather than just a sighting. 

Your most embarassing moment as a guide? That would be when I got lost in the Savuti channel in Botswana a few years ago. I had decided to take my group from one end of the concession to the other for a full day out in order to see the channel and hopefully get some cat sightings of which we were battling for on that particular safari (at this stage five days into the trip). Having worked in that area for three solid years I thought there was no chance of getting lost but, long grass, over-cast weather, and roads that had long been over-grown and disused conspired against me and it was 02:30 in the morning by the time we got back to the lodge. Luckily I had pre planned for this possibility so we had enough food, water etc. a Land Rover with a strong radio to keep communications going….. which in those areas of 300 000 acres is very important when you get into the endless mopane forests at night and its over cast, and you have left your GPS at the camp because you know the area well! Apparently not as well as I thought…. lesson learnt!

If you had to recommend only one lodge where would it be? Mombo Camp on Chiefs Island in Botswana. The area’s diversity of habitat and unbelievable density of both predator and prey makes it without a doubt my first choice. There’s something hard to describe about Mombo: an unbelievable interaction and behaviour of game that always seems to happen there for some unexplained reason.

Your most memorable sighting? This is a tricky one! I think it has to be one of the spectacular Mara River crossings where we watched thousands of wildebeest cross, lions catch them, huge crocodiles take them and this went on for nearly an hour. It’s difficult to explain the energy, noise and drama of one of these big crossings when you are literally in the middle of it all.

Which wildlife area is top of your to-see-wishlist?
I would like to see the Katavi area in Tanzania. It's remote, wild, and has huge concentrations of wildlife and few people, all good combinations in my book.

if you could start your career over is there anything you'd do differently?
I don’t think so, I was lucky to have a huge diversity of experiences varying from game capture to anti poaching, dealing with guests, seeing and guiding in many parts of Africa which I'm very grateful for. I think I would have not donned the teardrop ray bans and should have cut my “kuif” and worn longer shorts because when I look at those photos of when I started guiding it looks like a combination of the Bee Gees and a Top Gun shoot gone wrong!

What's the most interesting animal behaviour you've witnessed? I think the recent sighting I had a few weeks ago of a wild dog female at Mombo Camp in Botswana that has adopted two black-backed jackals and is helping the adult jackals to raise their litter of pups. Extraordinary to see them all together and helping one another as if they were all one species.

Can you share three guiding techniques for aspiring guides?

· Share with your guests how you “read” the bush and the signs and what they mean, include them in the experience of tracking and finding animals, understanding alarm calls and why you are doing what you are doing as far as listening for calls and understanding animal body language and how that helps you to find what you are looking for. 

· “Read” your guests properly and understand what they want rather than what you want

· Make their time with you at your lodge an experience rather than just a string of “Big 5 “sightings

What was your most hair-rasing moment? Canoeing down the Zambezi and having one of our canoes flipped by  hippos, then another two “bumps” that same morning. I’m not a big canoe fan as I feel you have very little control over the situation and being in deep water with hippos underneath me isn’t my favourite way to spend a safari.

To book a safari with Lee contact us or head to www.essentialafrica.co.za

Check out Lee's fantastic profile here

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